Praise in public and reprimand in private — Like most clichés, it’s become one because it’s true. Anyone who’s experienced the embarrassment of public ridicule knows the sting of it. This rule isn’t just for kids. It’s for everyone.
As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jackson Kerchis.
Jackson is the COO of www.StudentFi.org — a grant-backed fintech startup offering content, tools, and advice to help you navigate the process of paying for higher education. He also holds a bachelor of science in happiness (in addition to economics) and founded www.happinessmajor.com. He has experience in tech consulting with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and management consulting with the Audience Inc.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I come from a background in management consulting. I was a member of the University of Alabama’s prestigious management consulting academy. As it goes with many competitive business students I was funneled towards the investment banking and management consulting track. I don’t have anything against those industries and may still end up there. In my junior year, however, I began to wax more entrepreneurial.
I’d think — look at these incredibly sharp bankers and consultants. They’re going in and working 70 hours per week for a good salary to make their clients millions. They could work less and make more if they just started their own things. Maybe that’s not always true, but that inclination stuck with me. At about that time, my friend Jordan finished up at J.P. Morgan on Wall Street to start at Wharton. He got his first student loan repayment notice and didn’t know where to turn. He decided to do something about it. He founded Maxwell financial and brought me on as the first executive. We later became the studentfi.org you see today.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Of all the companies in our space we are the most authentic. We’re guided by our mission — to end the student debt sentence. We’re truly by young people for young people. I believe we relate much better to students and recent graduates. We’re really in touch with the pains people go through because we’re there ourselves. Compare that to say a 50 year old ex banker who decides to start a student loan company.
A story that comes to mind came up in one of our partnership negotiations. One company we work with, Summer, is a great service which matches people with student loan borrower benefits programs. Of course we’re a business. So when we met to draw up a partnership agreement I had to see what they’d give us for sending them clients. They told me that given where their business was, they wouldn’t be able to compensate us for clients.
I paused for moment as we both thought this would be the end of discussion. But then I thought “who cares?!”. I said look your business is a very valuable service to people with student loans. You don’t have to pay us anything. We’re going to list you as a partner resource on the site and recommend you to our users. At the end of the day, it’s all about the mission.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
The most interesting story — in the practical sense — was my introduction to lean startup / customer discovery. Starting a new business is — to paraphrase Elon Musk — like staring into the abyss. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the complete lack of direction. Often you don’t even have data to make any assumptions. That context drives the customer discovery approach. New businesses don’t fail because they fail to make something. They fail because they make something that nobody wants. Mature businesses analyze data, draft a plan, and execute. New businesses have to make assumptions, test them, then adjust or proceed.
In StudentFi’s first year we didn’t really do any of that. We flew blind. Then I got some training in this approach and everything began to crystalize. I found the approach illuminating. You can waste years writing and executing a business plan or you can just go talk to people! I’d interview students, parents, and subject matter experts (admissions coaches, guidance counselors, financial aid offices, etc). We also looked at which players in the space were most successful and benchmarked their best practices. Our future users began to drive our vision rather than trying to project our vision onto them. We ended up finding that people need resources, tools, and advice. So we made a website which offered all of those things for free.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’m not sure if this is funny or just sad. I learned you probably want to have a plan / idea / vision / business model BEFORE you build your product. I feel like every young entrepreneur these days is defacto — I’m going to build an app. Not many 20 year olds drop out to manufacture industrial goods. That’s fine, but make sure it’s an app that needs to be built and has a tangible vison.
Our funny (wasn’t as funny at the time) mistake was building an app without any of those things! We developed a half-baked Maxwell Financial app which was on the app store for a few months. It was complete with bugs, limited functionality, and no potential to generate revenues. Alas, we pivoted with the help of an experienced strategy consultant. They say don’t put the cart before the horse. Don’t put the app before the business.
What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
Work less. There are a thousand hacks and personal productivity workarounds that you’ll find to try and trick yourself out of doing the obvious — work less. We weren’t put on this planet to work all the time. If you’re working too much don’t buy a new supplement or read a new book. Just quit working so damn much. Studies have shown the average knowledge worker is only productive for 3 hours per day. For any meaningful work, I’d rather have 7 hours of thoughtful, engaged , well rested effort than 10 hours of half-asleep struggling.
Invest your energy into activities which yield more energy. I think of this as dividend reinvestment for your well-being. Some activities yield more energy and others suck it up. Think exercise versus drinking. An hour workout will make you feel a little tired after but it raises your endorphins and gets you feeling better. Drinking will shoot that night and the next day. In money terms this is like taking your bonus and sinking it in an index fund instead of buying a new suit. Look for opportunities to reinvest time and energy into practices which pay returns to your time and energy.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
There are many different forms and styles of leadership which work. I’ll give a key consideration and then a general idea. The first consideration is context. An army general, management consulting partner, and an elementary school teacher are going to lead in different ways. The importance of context is often overlooked. We tend to talk in terms of certain styles or principles of leadership as good or bad. Of course that’s true for some. But a drill sergeant or a warehouse supervisor can probably stand to be more command and control oriented than say a creative marketing manager. So the first definition of leadership is to optimize the efforts of yourself and others within a certain context. You can’t optimize across contexts.
A more general consideration comes from the Tao Te Ching. Many translations speak to the effect of leading without leading. The people just do what they ought to do without knowing they’re being led. I think of this as the ghost in the machine. That’s what I strive for in my leadership roles. I’m not at the top of the hierarchy. I’m the force that’s everywhere, making things work.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
First I focus on physiology. Your state determines how you perceive your environment and make decisions. If you’re tired or angry you’re going to think about things differently than when you feel awesome. Breathing is an important tool. That’s because it’s closely tied with heartrate and the chemicals which regulate how you feel. So I’ll try to spend a few minutes with deep nasal breathes. You can get higher oxygen saturation through the nose. It’s better for you. That’s also a great way to anchor to the present moment.
I find posture to be important as well. Power posing is a great practice. Standing with your arms over your head or your feet wide with hands on your hips actually lowers cortisol (anxiety hormone) and raises testosterone (associated with risk taking / confidence). Again you want to be in an optimal physiological state as that determines the neurochemical environment that your mind is operating in.
That’s right before the event. Leading up to it I try to condition my anxiety or stress tolerance. So I want to get into that anxiety, high stress state and learn to thrive in it. A great way to practice being there and building up a tolerance is through exposure. So put yourself into these uncomfortable situations and build up. It’s like building up weight training on a muscle. The week of some big interviews I’ll go knock on a stranger’s door and try to have a conversation. Or I’ll stand under a cold shower and try to do mental math. These sound crazy but it’s really training like a navy seal or something. You condition yourself to operate effectively in high pressure situations.
Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers about your experience with managing a team and giving feedback?
As the COO of StudentFi I’m responsible for synchronizing action across the firm. I consider myself the “ghost in the machine”. I’m the force that’s making things work. Instead of a sort of active management, I try to design processes and accountabilities which effectively make the system manage itself. I believe this is a more elegant approach to management and it increases scalability.
I started by listing every recurring process that needs done for us to function. I then assigned each of these to a functional area. Of course we also have ad hoc projects assigned as needed. I set out a handful of key metrics to track to establish accountability for each functional area. Every week I review progress with the relevant team member. I’m sure to keep in mind that as a new venture there’s more to performance than just numbers.
On a final note with management, I strive to empower team members in this system. Again, I’m not the commander. I’m the “systems engineer” synchronizing action and establishing accountability. I say there are levels to team members. A level one employee doesn’t get things done and you can’t really count on them. A level two employee is dependable and you can count on them to handle most anything. That’s good. But what I want are level three employees. These are individuals who go beyond getting done what they’re given. They’re capable of identifying and articulating what needs done and then doing it. These are exceedingly difficult to find. Fortunately, we have those folks on our team.
Turning to feedback, it starts with those key metrics mentioned above. They’re meant to give some context to how things are. “Oh, return on ad spend for Facebook has increased, that’s good” or “Oh, I see you only reached out to 5/10 partners, why might that be?”. This type of review and feedback should be done consistently. A final thing to consider, I’ll touch on this as we move forward, comes from leadership expert Ken Blanchard.
He says, “catch people in the act of doing things right”. This is feedback at its best. As humans, particularly managers, we have a negativity bias. Neuroscientists talk about the default mode network (DMN) which is the operating pathway our brains default into most of the time. The chief mode of this pathway is scanning the environment for what’s wrong. It’s much easier to point out that he/she forgot to do something or that they’re over budget than it is to notice how exceptional their last project was.
This might seem intuitive but it will be constructive to spell it out. Can you share with us a few reasons why giving honest and direct feedback is essential to being an effective leader?
It’s better for you and better for them. The latter is pretty obvious right; people need proper feedback to refine their work. It’s like a ship captain shouting out how to adjust the mast so the ship stays on course. The former might be underappreciated. It’s the same idea as the old saying “what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” In this context, deceive is too strong a word. But the idea is that it can be exhausting trying to talk in circles around what needs to be said. It’s a waste of time and energy.
I will challenge this idea of honest and direct feedback somewhat. The truth is, honest and direct feedback is not always right. You need to understand the context. Sometimes people need affirmation or encouragement more than feedback. Further, if feedback is too direct they may not process it. If a child were to show you their scribbled stick figure drawing on the fridge, would you really give your honest and direct feedback? If you asked your doctor for feedback and he said, “you’re fat and off the wagon you need to get off your ass and exercise!” how would that go?
Of course, leading in an organization is different. But honest and direct feedback should be wielded with caution. Blunt your honesty depending on the situation. Temper your directness always.
One of the trickiest parts of managing a team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. Can you please share with us five suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee? Kindly share a story or example for each.
Truthfully, I don’t think it should be all that different from giving feedback to a traditional employee. Some of these approaches will apply more so to remote, but they’re largely universal.
- Feedback sandwich — As I touched on earlier, managers (as humans) are biased toward the negative. It’s much easier to spot what’s going horribly wrong than what’s going exceedingly right. Further, humans have a deep-seated need for affirmation. That’s how I came up with the “feedback sandwich”. The idea is that any piece of critical feedback should be sandwiched between two pieces of positive feedback. First, this will help you to overcome your bias. In reality your teammates are probably doing more right than wrong. If this weren’t the case you’d be out of business! Second, it will prime them to be more receptive to what you’re saying. “Hey Sarah, I really love what you’ve done with our paid search strategy. I think there’s some room to improve in campaign x — you may want to narrow our audience for higher ROI. That being said I think you’ve done an extraordinary job in campaign z.”
- Temper your language — Again, understand that we’re managing humans — and their emotions. How receptive people are to processing feedback is, unfortunately, tied to emotional state. Tone is crucial particularly for critical feedback. We can use language to soften the blow and make difficult feedback easier to digest. Case one — “You only contacted four prospects this week. I’m not impressed by your performance. You need to contact at least ten next week.” Case two — “It seems that we missed our prospecting target this week. It’s not the end of the world, but you’re great at what you do so I have high expectations for you. Let’s get back on target this week”. What would you have an easier time responding to?
- Talk about your mistakes — Jesus said “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”. Even two thousand years ago people had a disdain for those who are critical of others when they have faults. As a manager, you too are going to err. It’s important that you be open to feedback and sharing your mistakes to avoid resentment from others. I can’t understate the power of opening your critical feedback with something like “I’m far from perfect myself, but here’s how I think you can improve…” or “I’ve made that same mistake myself, here’s how to fix it…”
- Praise in public and reprimand in private — Like most clichés, it’s become one because it’s true. Anyone who’s experienced the embarrassment of public ridicule knows the sting of it. This rule isn’t just for kids. It’s for everyone.
- Ask questions — Here’s another gem for applying non-confrontational communication to negative feedback. A question is much less threatening than a negative comment. You can also ask how they feel about their own performance. Usually this will invite them to be open and honest if they’re underperforming. Again note the difference. “Jake, your portion of the product was behind schedule and failed to meet requirements last month.” “Jake, what do you think of last month’s performance? Do you agree that things were a little off track? Why do you think we failed to meet expectations?”
Can you address how to give constructive feedback over email? If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote.
How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
Two strategies here — one is simply upping the ratio of good to bad feedback. So before I mentioned the “feedback sandwich”. Maybe you need to increase that ratio. Two is to throw in more positive language and emojis. I personally think it’s a shame that emojis are viewed as decidedly ‘unprofessional’. Of course, you don’t want to get carried away with blushy faces and monkey faces. But a simple 🙂 can go a very long way in shifting to a more positive dynamic.
In your experience, is there a best time to give feedback or critique? Should it be immediately after an incident? Should it be at a different time? Should it be at set intervals? Can you explain what you mean?
Again this is largely context dependent. First, there should be some feedback given at set intervals. This will inject a degree of structure into your team / organization. Of course, some feedback will be more ad hoc as incidents play out. This type of ad hoc feedback is situation dependent. Ideally immediate is best, but there are times — namely when emotions are high — that it is best to wait.
Maybe your marketing person posts something with a typo. Immediate feedback is probably best. “Hey please make sure to review errors before posting”. Now, if your colleague misses a client deadline and he/she gets roasted by your manager in front of the entire engagement team. In this case it’s going to be best to wait a few days for your colleague to regroup and collect their emotions.
So to recap, I’d recommend set intervals. Add in situation-dependent ad hoc feedback.
How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?
A great boss is microcosm of his or her organization. He or she embodies the qualities which make for effectiveness and helps them to manifest at the level of the organization. At the highest level, the boss must be exceptional in identifying and defining what needs to be done and ensuring it is done effectively.
When we began our journey with StudentFi our leadership team was fairly strong with ensuring things are done well. The problem was we didn’t bother to identify and define what we were doing! Long story short we spent time, money, and effort on things which didn’t align into a final destination. We brought in a very experienced strategy consultant to help us define the vision and business. Once we had that we continued executing efficiently. This time the work resulted in a business!
This is the critical distinction that makes a great boss. Anyone can manage the work. An exceptional boss defines and articulates the vision (what work needs done) and then ensures it’s done well.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
It’s time for a movement in financial literacy education. That’s particularly true for our young people in the context of higher education. I feel that we’re defaulted into a narrative of taking on mass amounts of debt for a much overpriced education (that doesn’t deliver on value). That’s not to say that no one should go to college. But we need to empower people to understand what course of action will set them up for a future of financial freedom.
For the last 200 years we’ve taught people how to get a job. But no one wants to get a job. People want financial freedom. They want to have enough to meet their needs and enjoy their lives. Shouldn’t we teach people about that? No, no you go to school to get job. But you get a job to have money to live the life you want. So why don’t we learn about money?
The school system was designed to teach you to be a worker. It was never about teaching you how to manage your financial life. I never heard about how to taxes, mortgages, budgets, or investing in school.
It’s a good thing I studied the French and Indian War three years in a row. Unless you major in finance in college you’re probably not going to find a class on managing your money or financing a purchase. That’s ridiculous. When’s the last time you used trigonometry? I’m not saying we shouldn’t teach math or history. But the goal of education is not to create human encyclopedias. The goal is empowering people with the knowledge to live well. Financial literacy is a critical component of that.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Life is a checkerboard and the player opposite you is time. If you neglect to move promptly, or hesitate before moving, your men will be wiped off the board by time. You are playing against a partner who will not tolerate indecision!” — Napoleon Hill
This phrase is what’s prompted me to accelerate my business and really my approach to life. When operating in an uncertain environment it’s easy to be overwhelmed. This quote is a constant reminder to act decisively. It’s much better to move forward in a direction that’s mostly correct than it is to sit there and wait.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Visit www.studentfi.org to follow us and subscribe to our newsletter. You can also contact us for advice on the contact page. You can also find me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/jacksonkerchis/
Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.